When I lived in the dorms, there was a kid down the hall with the nastiest couch known to humankind. In the fall, he found it abandoned on the side of the road awaiting its final demise. Though damp with morning dew and ugly as sin, this kid dragged it up to South Quad’s 6th floor and gave it a new home. Rather than clean it, he threw a sheet over it, thereby transforming the “street couch” into “his couch.” When I found him curled up on this ancient piece of dilapidated furniture, I would shudder. It would be miraculous if the couch was actually sanitary; it must have been home to mice, termites, lice or even some rare strain of the plague leftover from the 1300s. One night I asked him, “How can you stand to sit on that thing?”
“It’s comfortable, man,” was his reply.
This condition of comfort cannot be seen with eyes or heard with ears. Comfort can only be experienced. Often experiences surpass other senses, and sometimes they combine all senses. Basically, an experience does not solely rely on any obvious visual features. My hallmate did not want to be bothered by what was festering under that thin sheet, so long as the couch conformed to his body. Diseases be damned, he wanted that experience.
Interiors are only about experience. From the outside, architecture is but a picture we see from afar. Though a structure may look externally intriguing, it cannot touch us or engage us. Our eyes can only see it as they see everything else, thereby dissolving buildings into the backdrop of our daily lives. Yet as we cross the threshold of a building’s doorway, we are immediately consumed by the structure, and everything we sense is directly related to the surfaces that envelope us.
Experience is feeling the fourth heaviest carillon in the world shaking my chair when I’m inside Burton Tower. An experience can be clarity or confusion. First realizing that both escalators in the Duderstadt lobby go up gave me a learning experience, as did getting lost in the Grad Library’s stacks. Our experiences can even contradict realities. I experience the atrium in the Chem building as outdoor space, although it is indoors, and the diagonal passageway under West Hall as an interior space, even though it is an outdoor corridor.
Interiors that promote unique experiences are becoming rarer, but luckily the University has some interesting spots right here on campus. I suggest four drastically different locations as starting points to try to experience architecture from the inside.
Rackham Auditorium: Recently renovated by SmithGroup, the 2004 Rackham revival received an AIA architecture award. Stately both inside and out, ornate furniture and tall ceilings give Rackham a cozy atmosphere that commands respect. This duplicity of elegance and authority peaks in the auditorium. The stage and seating area are small enough to evoke intimacy and large enough to promote grandeur. When first entering the auditorium, all eyes immediately move toward the ceiling that ties everything together. Without relief, the ceiling radiates outward with intricate patterns of paint guiding its way. Lights poke through the ceiling like glistening stars, yet the low ceiling height reminds us of how near this interior sky really is. In all, Rackham Auditorium is an experience of tangible style without any off-putting elitist flare.
Smith Law Library Addition: Rackham serves experience through decoration, and the underground Law Library provides a spatial experience. Opened in 1981, the addition was built below ground to not detract from the existing Law Quad. With no exterior to consider, the architects of Gunnar Birkerts could focus on the interior. Regardless of the vivid, green carpet and its exclusivity, the library is a great place to visit. A light well reflects daylight into the entire subterranean structure and provides crazy cantilevers that allow studiers to appear as if they’re floating in space. From anywhere in the library, there is a unique experience not found in ordinary buildings built above ground.
Haven Hall: The 2003 addition to Mason and Haven Halls is far more successful than any could have imagined. Creating a vital link to the Diag through what was once a back door, the glass promenade provides an experience that everyone sees as they walk by. At night, when the dancers use the reflections to perfect their moves, the hall space becomes performance space. Transparency, spectators, and voyeurism all make this interior space an experience to those inside or those just passing by.
IM Weight Room: As a patron of the IM Building for many years, I dare you to look at the 2003 weight room renovation in a different way. A climbing wall is nice and the weight room is decent, but imagine what was there before. Seven nasty squash courts were replaced by an expanse of open floor punctuated only by columns, what architects call a free plan. The space went from specific to general, from modular to unbound, from cramped to relaxed. Not originally intended to be a weight room, the area both looks and feels totally different from the rest of the building.
Whether visiting for the first time or the hundredth, next time you inhabit these spaces, absorb the atmosphere, consult your feelings, and ask yourself, “Would I risk getting the plague for this experience?”